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What is Cooperative Learning? - Definition & Theory

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

This lesson will teach you about cooperative learning, which has been linked to better social and academic development in students. We'll explore the basics and some of the underlying theories that support this instructional methodology.

What is Cooperative Learning?

We humans are fundamentally social animals. This doesn't necessarily mean we are all extroverted people who love to work in large groups and get a charge out of socializing. What this means is that throughout our history we have evolved to work in groups to maximize our abilities. Some anthropologists theorize this was a deciding factor in the species Homo Sapiens winning out over the Neanderthals - our larger groups were more resistant to challenges by virtue of communal support. Larger groups allowed for more hunting, more gathering, and more caring for the sick and elderly. We've spent millions of years flourishing as social creatures, so it should come as no surprise that we learn best in this manner as well.

Cooperative learning refers to small, group-based instruction in which students work together to achieve a learning goal. This is utilized at virtually every school, at every grade level, around the world. There are reasons to this, which we'll cover in the Supporting Theory section, but for now just understand that it is an extremely common and effective pedagogical tool.

Cooperative learning in the classroom
Cooperative learning in the classroom

Cooperative learning can be further understood by comparing it to the two other main learning structures. Individualist learning involves students working autonomously towards their instructional goal. This style certainly has its merits, as it helps students to promote self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. Alternatively, competitive learning is when students vie against each other to achieve a learning goal. While competitive learning has quite a few detractors, when exercised properly it can help students develop a healthy competitive drive and provide extrinsic motivation. In cooperative and individualist learning, students are assessed against a rubric to determine success, while competitive learning pits student performance against each other, such as grading an assignment on a curve.

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